Can Clarks shoes inspire young people to read and write? Er…no.

The (very) Portuguese writer José Saramago opened his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech with the words ‘The wisest man I have ever met didn’t know how to read or write’. The term for that in Portuguese is analfabetismo, or in English illiteracy. Saramago’s highfalutin homily about his illiterate grandfather, who on the final day of his life went round saying a tearful adeus to all the trees on the land which had sustained him throughout 90 or so years, wasn’t meant to suggest that it’s a waste of time learning to write or read, although anyone who’s tried to get though the novel ‘The Elephant’s Journey’ will have experienced that sensation at some point. Saramago meant that books are not the only means of experiencing reality, and that someone who some might be inclined to regard as an ignorant old peasant was just as sensitive and articulate as, well, a Nobel Prize-winning author.

Not knowing how to read and write does not imply being unable to express oneself verbally. While the ability to speak develops organically, most people learn the technical skills of literacy at school, and although their lives are generally vastly improved as a result, it doesn’t necessarily make them more intelligent or a better person – as a case in point I’d just like to mention that the novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’, whose author (Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand) was, significantly, never nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, is over 1,200 pages long.

The worldview (apparently) espoused in that book – that there are no values, only prices, and that those who have money are better than those who don’t – is one that warms the blood of the kind of lizards who are appointed to cabinet positions on Theresa May’s cabinet. That’s presumably why, when tasked with addressing falling levels of adult literacy, the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zawahi immediately thought of the buying and selling of footwear. After, all if it’s not a exchange of cash for goods and services, what’s the meaning of any human endeavour? Her idea (and I am absolutely not making this up, it was in The Guardian yesterday) is to train the staff of shoe shops to engage young people in conversation while selling them shoes, thereby improving their language skills and making them into literate adults.

Of course, there has to be a commercial interest involved, so the scheme is a tie-in with, er, Clarks. After all, we all remember (how could we ever forget?) the horrifying images of smashed and looted branches of Clarks shoes during the 2011 riots. If there’s one thing that interests young people nowadays apart from their phones, it’s the thought of the latest range of sensible footwear from…

Hold on, there’s also their phones. Young people probably spend more time reading and writing nowadays than they ever have before. Granted, they may not be using the standard variety of language – in fact, just like when they speak – just like, in fact, when any of us speak – they and we draw on a huge range of codes, styles, registers and other semiotic resources including emojis. This is, after a fashion – and young people tend to take fashion quite seriously, which is why they don’t shop in fucking Clarks – literacy in action, and if schools want to develop their pupils’ ability to read and write – as they should, and they do, in ways that way surpass whatever sub-‘The Thick Of It’ brainwaves pass through the mammon-fixated minds of government ministers, then it’s that they should be seeking to work with.

Let’s return to the original and universally accepted definition of literacy: the ability to read and write. Let’s expand it a little to include knowledge of what the word ‘literacy’ actually means. I put it to you, then, that the Minister for Children and Families, Nadhim Zawahi, is…illiterate.

Some thoughts on language, education and class


I spend my working life around people (students of English for Academic Purposes) who are insecure about their language use. That means I get to think and pontificate about issues of status, ownership and standard versus non-standard forms.

I can identify with the anxieties of my students, and not just as someone who has (in the past) enjoyed learning other languages. I’ve also long been self-conscious about my command over/of English. Like some of my students(,) I’m very sensitive about being corrected, tending to take corrections as a bit of a put-down rather than a chance to learn. The ego-insecurities I experience when expressing myself in other languages are clear manifestations of anxiety about my own status as an English-speaker.

Some of that anxiety is related to having a parent for whom English is a second language, and part is related to class. My background is not exactly humble but I was the first person in my family to go to university. Working in higher education feels like an achievement, but I’m vulnerable to a certain feeling of being out-of-place. Someone who came from a similar background was the critical theorist, academic and blogger Mark Fisher (aka k-punk), who wrote this in 2013 about the response of the ‘left’ to the comedian and actor Russell Brand’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman about the need for revolution:

I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background…(His) forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. (However) Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left…It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’. Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.

Fisher himself wrote movingly about an episode when his own mother confided that she didn’t want to go into a Georgian teashop in a neighbouring town for High Tea because she was worried she would “do the wrong thing”:

We know this too, really, we felt it going on to University, feel it still, my sister and I, she with her anxiety around her middle-class friends whose parents are all teachers and doctors, me with my endless writing of novels I can’t bear to do anything with as it means engaging with them, having to make them like me, listen to their opinions of my work. But for us, half clambered out of our class as we are, we don’t find a Grange tea-room existentially threatening. She said it herself, my mum, and it immediately struck me, the disavowal, “some people get nervous in tea rooms, don’t they?

These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people.

In the case of Russell Brand, faced with mass and social media sneers at his upstart activism and the ‘sub-undergraduate dross’ of his writings about politics, he retreated. He realised that if he wanted his right to discuss his concerns to be recognised, he would have to reeducate himself. He is now doing a three-year MA in Religion and Global Politics at SOAS, and is sharing his newly-acquired knowledge via a (frankly unmissable) podcast. In the first episode, an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans on the theme of political violence, he gave what I think is an inspiringly honest account of how he arrived at this point and how it feels to be there:

“Being briefly in the academic world, as I have been, obviously loads of it’s really really exciting but I think a lot of what I hear feels reiterative, like someone says ‘what’s a country? It’s just an agreement in our minds, and I think, I knew that, anyway, those are things I’ve come to myself. But then there are things that are so complex I can’t begin to come to terms with them, and in this field I’m having to learn about political history, critical theory, philosophy, so I’m suddenly having to learn about Foucault, Derrida and all these other names I can’t even say confidently yet. And my original impulse for doing that course was, I got really deeply involved in the political world, and (…) I realised that this was a very complex world and I didn’t have the armoury, the artillery to engage in this battle. And I’ll like our listeners to be able to embark on this journey with me, so what do you think is a good entry point for someone like me who feels disillusioned with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin on a journey of understanding?”

One theorist who Russell would find very useful in terms of issues of language, politics and class is Pierre Bourdieu. He relates that feeling of being out of one’s depth and beyond one’s station to what he calls ‘habitus’: the attitudes, mannerisms, tastes, moral intuitions and habits that influence our life chances. This behavioural comfort zone is a manifestation of our level of cultural capital. While Brand may have a high level of objectified cultural capital in the form of fame and wealth, his attempts to acquire institutionalised cultural capital (formal educational qualifications) are hindered by accent, which is a manifestation of embodied capital. In particular fields (for example in the academic world) it can be hard for individuals from a working-class background to obtain a “feel for the game” and to feel they should be (as it were) on the pitch.

This seems to me to be related to the experiences of people from ‘foreign’ language backgrounds in higher education. ‘Foreigners’ don’t automatically have a pre-assigned rung on the social ladder, and hence struggle to find an appropriate station even when they have a sufficient mastery of the language. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who has an excellent command of the spoken language and who knows things and can do things in it that I certainly couldn’t. I wonder how he views Brand, and how he relates to what Brand says about his own struggle to feel like a valid participant in the academic world. My friend recently dropped out of a university course he’d long dreamed of doing because he felt his English wasn’t up to writing long essays (I encouraged him to continue and offered to help, but to an apparent avail). In fact, I’m writing this to persuade him, others like him and also to remind myself that such feelings are very common and by no means insurmountable.

From outside, manifestations of social class are hard to perceive. English people know when to question someone’s intellectual credentials as soon as we/they hear us/them speak. To people who didn’t grow up here, vocal class markers are much harder to recognise. It may seem to my friend that all ‘English’ or British’ people are equally confident in higher educational settings, that they we all feel valid and accepted.

Perceptions of these issues inevitably differ, depending partly on one’s cultural and social background. Among my (mostly well-heeled) students, I’ve found that some people have a frustratingly monolithic understanding of the relationship between language and social status. The belief persists that the speech of some is simply inadequate. There’s also widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, with some assuming that the former is a poor attempt to produce the latter. Inevitably, others have explored these issues far more articulately than I ever could.

As for myself, I always feel anxious when someone makes a jibe about someone(’s?) being ‘self-taught’. Everyone is, to some extent. Luckily (after three slightly wasted undergraduate years from which I was lucky to emerge with a 2;1), I eventually had the chance to go back to university and get a Master’s degree, an experience which greatly improved my sense of confidence in what I say and write. Having lived in other countries and struggled with other languages has also helped to bolster my self-assurance, as has teaching the spoken and written language for almost twenty years and spending several years examining others on their usage. In terms of writing, the internet has also helped enormously (what’s a good synonym for confidence? what are the three types of cultural capital again?).

Inevitably, for everything I write here, thousands of people are studying or have studied that subject in an academic context and are far better placed to provide evidence-based theories than I am. A lot of what I present here is hearsay and guesswork, but I content myself in the knowledge that this is after all just a blog. I’d like to think of myself as a polymath, but ultimately I’m more of a dilettante, and this is an appropriate format.

The wounds of class run deep, but then, as both Lynsey Hanley and Helen Mort have articulated brilliantly, the sense of discomfort at being stranded between classes, particularly at being a working class person in the more rarified echelons of higher education, can also be uncomfortable. Then there’s the opposite: chippiness and reverse snobbery, and then the reaction to chippiness and reverse snobbery. And so on.

I still lack confidence when sending people what I’ve written with a view to getting it published. To do so you have to be fairly bullish, and being rejected or ignored is always painful. Although some things I write get a very pleasing reaction, I have little way of knowing whether or not what I write is any good in terms of what matters, which is to be accepted as more-or-less an equal by those whose writing I admire. But at the same time, most of them are professional writers and/or academics, and I’m not, so it should, by rights, remain a pipe dream.

There remains one thing I want to make clear, for the sake of my own honesty and integrity. This piece may contain what some will regard as self-pity, and I wouldn’t really have much of an answer to such a charge. I had the chance to go to university, twice, without getting into debt, in my own language. My privileges in terms of education have, in comparison with most people in the world, been immense. I’m not a victim of disadvantage in any sense that means anything on a global scale. I’ve even, despite my manifold anxieties about my credibility as an English speaker and writer, and thanks largely to a mere accident of birth, managed to make a reasonable living as a teacher of my ‘native’ language. But I know that these feelings are not exclusive, and I hope a) that reading this has made clear some connections between class, status, nationality and language that may not have occurred to you before and b) that you find this sentence an appropriate way to end a piece of writing of this nature.